Saturday, December 20, 2014

THE MYTH OF SCIENTIFIC PROOF

Science has failed to prove evolution.  I hear this all the time from creationists.  And they are absolutely right.  But not for the reasons they claim.  The fact that science has not proved the truth of evolution has nothing to do with the quality of scientific inquiry.  Rather it has to do with the nature and objectives of that inquiry.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

READING THE BIBLE THROUGH

I have never read the Bible through.  As an obedient child growing up in the Seventh-day Adventist church and school system, I was guided to those Bible passages that the church leadership and my teachers identified as important.  These included most (but not all) of the great stories, as well as those passages that were seen as supporting the Christian message in general and specific SDA doctrines in particular.  I still have the Bible that I got as a present for my 8th birthday, many passages of which I dutifully underlined and footnoted as part of my instruction leading up to my baptism and formal acceptance as a member of the church.

Monday, November 24, 2014

THE RIGHT TO DIE

This essay addresses the question of whether and under what circumstances a person should have the right to end his or her life voluntarily.  Pretty heavy stuff, I know.  While I have read some literature on the subject, I am no moral philosopher.  So this may be the height of naiveté on my part, as there have been hundreds of volumes written on this subject by others who have given these questions a great deal of thought.  Nevertheless, I find that I have strong beliefs on the question.  And my goal here is simply to share some of those beliefs and to test those beliefs by writing about them and by inviting others to help me to refine or rethink them.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

FAITH IN SCIENCE

In discussions with my Christian friends I often find myself asserting that their religious beliefs are based on faith, and when I use that term it’s clear that I am using it in a deprecatory sense.  I contrast the bases for their beliefs with the bases for scientific beliefs, which, I argue, arise not from faith but from objective evidence.  My friends respond that, yes, they have faith—in their religion, in scripture, in God—but that I, too, have faith—in scientific beliefs and in the scientific method.  But that’s not properly true if one defines faith, as I do, as belief despite a lack of objective evidence, because scientific beliefs arise not in the absence of evidence but by reason of the evidence.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

THE COMMANDMENTS: A LAYMAN’S ATTEMPT AT AN IMPROVED MORAL CODE

In a prior essay I criticized the ten commandments as being negative, incomplete, and generally deficient.  Smugly, I claimed that I could do a better job and promised to do just that in a subsequent essay.  Well, not having any training whatsoever in moral philosophy, I found this to be much more difficult than I had imagined.  But a promise is a promise, so here is my layman’s first attempt at outlining a better moral code.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A FEW NOTES ON THE EVOLUTION OF RELIGION

Among my biggest pet peeves has been the practice of Christians to cherry pick scriptural support for their particular point of view.  Not that I am persuaded by arguments that rely on scriptural authority rather than on objective evidence and critical analysis.  But, still, it is frustrating because the Bible is filled with all manner of writings that are inconsistent, not just with other passages, but with prevailing cultural norms.

One of the most common of these is the modern portrayal of God as an omni-benevolent deity eager to welcome us into his heavenly kingdom with open arms.  This is at extreme odds with the Old Testament portrayal of God as a vengeful, bloodthirsty deity who is consumed with anger whenever humans disappoint him by failing to give him their undivided allegiance and devotion or simply by being, well, human.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

THE NATURE OF CHRISTIAN DOUBT

A lot of my Christian friends have stated that, like me, they have had periods of religious doubt. “Really?” my cynical side has responded (silently, of course). “Are you just saying that to argue that your faith is intellectually defensible, that you have considered both sides and have chosen the faith side as just as reasonable as the secular side?”  And I do believe that in many cases that is a major motivation for such comments.  Each of us has experienced doubts from time to time about all manner of things and has needed some sort of inquiry or at least reassurance to put certain facts and ideas back into the “belief” column.  That, to my mind, is at a very different level from having a genuine crisis of faith.
But I also recognize that in other cases my cynicism has been unfair.  I know that many of my friends have had times when they have truly doubted their faith.  However, that only raises questions about the nature of their doubt.  How did their experience differ from mine, and why was their outcome different from mine?  Once I moved to the secular side, I never seriously looked back, I never had a crisis of unbelief, if you will.  My Christian friends, on the other hand, have reaffirmed their faith-based world view.

I know this is speculative on my part, but here are some possible differences in the nature of others’ doubts that may account for this difference in outcomes.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A FRESH LOOK AT THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. PART I: A CRITIQUE

When I was a kid at Battle Creek Academy, the Ten Commandments were a big deal.  A number of times during the elementary grades, we were required to memorize them, which I did as a dutiful student.  They were so thoroughly drilled into me that I could still recite them verbatim into my 40s.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

I DON'T HAVE FAITH IN SCIENCE

I admit that occasionally I have had disagreements with some of my conservative Christian friends over discrepancies between beliefs based on scientific principles and beliefs based on what is written in the Bible.  At some point in our discussions we might have the following exchange:

Me:  “My beliefs are based on objective observation, rational analysis, and scientific research.  Your (the Christian friend’s) beliefs are based on faith in scripture as the true word of God.”

Friend:  “We both rely on faith.  I put my faith in God and the Bible.  You put your faith in science and in the opinions of scientists.  It’s just a question of what and who you want to believe and where you put your faith.” 

Well . . . not really.  I don’t put my faith in science.  Let me explain.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

SCIENCE-FRIENDLY CHRISTIANITY

In some of my prior essays I have been critical of fundamentalist Christianity for its rejection of the principles of evolution, as well as anything else in science that conflicts with belief in a literal interpretation of scripture.  But this essay is addressed to my Christian friends who embrace belief both in mainstream Christian doctrine and in mainstream science.  They believe these two realms are intellectually compatible.  I disagree. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

SOME STRATEGIES FOR ATHEISTS

Lately there have been accusations from the Christian community that atheists have been attacking Christians for just wanting to practice their religion.  Hmmm . . . It might have started last winter with charges that atheists were objecting to the use of the greeting, “Merry Christmas.”  And more recently, of course, there has been secular criticism of the Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case.  All of this has made me think about where atheists should concentrate their efforts and about how vocal they should be in promoting their point of view.

Friday, June 27, 2014

A FEW THOUGHTS ON EINSTEIN AND RELIGION

As with a lot of people, growing up I considered Albert Einstein one of my intellectual heroes.  So I found an article by John Marsh regarding Einstein’s beliefs about religion thought-provoking on a number of grounds.  Marsh’s basic thesis is that, contrary to what noted atheist Richard Dawkins has written, Einstein was a deeply religious theist.  Hmm . . . I have read at least three biographies of Einstein, and all of them take the position that he was essentially atheistic.  Here are my thoughts on the Marsh article.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

I COULD WRITE A BETTER BIBLE THAN GOD

I’m an early riser and a regular at my local Starbucks.  The baristas start pouring my coffee as soon as they see me walk through the door.  But I’m not the only regular.  Among the others are a couple of small groups of middle-aged men who I see almost weekly.  The men are generally studying books together.  I have never wondered what they are studying, because I already know: They are studying the Bible.  And they are very serious about it.  They pore over verses, sometimes making notes or consulting other reference material, conferring with one another.  I also know that these little study groups are not unusual.  There are groups, large and small, everywhere that regularly get together for Bible study.  And of course there are millions of other Christians who study the Bible on their own, as a daily devotional.

I believe that for many Christians the Bible is a—and in many cases the—primary source they look to for an understanding of their lives and their world.  The Bible is a massive book.  With nearly 800,000 words, it’s the size of 12 average-length novels.  So there’s a lot to work with.  And, in some ways at least, the Bible is diverse.  It was written by 40 or so different men over a time period of perhaps 1,200 years.  It includes a collection of traditional stories, genealogies, history, prophetic writings, poetry, biography, and philosophy. 

But how good is the Bible really for how it is viewed by the millions of Christians who study it regularly—as a fundamental source for making sense of the world, for coping with the human condition?  If one assumes, as many Christians do, that the Bible was inspired by God to serve as life’s guide, not just for the time it was written but for all time, how well did God do?  My conclusion is, frankly, not very well.  In fact, I think I could have done a much better job.

Monday, June 2, 2014

DIFFERENCES IN SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATION

Over the past year I have had a number of “dialogues” with my Christian friends about religious faith.  One thing that has surprised me about these conversations have been the wide differences of opinion among Christians in what they believe.  To illustrate this point, I thought I would summarize some of those differences with respect to a few fundamental Christian beliefs.  And, yes, each of these is a firm and sincere belief espoused by one or more of the Christians with whom I have discussed these matters.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A MATTER OF LUCK

As a young man, a friend of mine had a gambling problem.  Shortly after his 21st birthday and not into college, he took the Greyhound to Las Vegas and proceeded to wipe out his savings at the roulette table.  That summer I was living in L.A. and my friend, now broke, made his way there and asked if I would loan him some money so he could return to the roulette tables.  He insisted that he had finally figured out how to win and it would just be a matter of time until he could repay me on his way to becoming wealthy.  When I explained to him that winning is, in the end, just a matter of probabilities and that those probabilities inexorably favor the casino, particularly in roulette, he replied that those odds didn’t apply to him, since he was “lucky.”  There was no loan.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

BEING SKEPTICAL ABOUT FREE WILL RESEARCH

I’ve had a lifelong love affair with Scientific American.  I began reading it as a freshman in high school, particularly Martin Gardner’s monthly column on “Mathematical Games,” and I have subscribed to the magazine off and on throughout my adult life.  Even though I have felt that over the years the articles have gotten less accessible to the lay reader, perhaps that’s more a function of my waning patience than it is the actual difficulty level of the articles.
In the most recent issue there is an article by two psychologists, entitled “The World Without Free Will.”  I thought, aha, here finally will be scientific evidence to support my position that free will does not exist.  I saved the article for last, thinking how much I would savor what the authors had to say.  I was in for a major disappointment, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

Monday, May 12, 2014

ENJOYING THE SHOW

They may have grumbled about it, but most of my friends have been willing to put up with my lack of belief in God.  But nearly all of them have been less tolerant of my lack of belief in free will.  I have written about my objections to free will before and if you are interested, you may want to check out my prior post on the subject of choice.  I’m not going to try to repeat the points I made in that essay, but I did want to deal here with one argument that my friends have made.  They have said that, as a practical matter, my belief that I do not have free will makes life ultimately meaningless.  What is the point of anything, they’ve said, if everything is laid out for us, if the end has already been determined, and if we have no actual control over our lives?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

VENTING MY FRUSTRATIONS

I have not been posting to my religion blog in recent weeks because, frankly, I have been disappointed in my inability to make any headway in convincing others of the virtues of reliance on the scientific method, objective evidence, and rational analysis in arriving at beliefs.  

Actually I had a number of goals when I started my blog.  One was simply to create an outlet for me to express myself philosophically.  Another was to refine and to sharpen my point of view, based on the simple act of writing my thoughts and on the responses that others, both religious and nonreligious, might make to what I write.  And I feel I have made progress on both of those goals.  It is the third goal--of persuasion--where I have come up short.  I’m not sure why I would think that anyone would be “converted” by my essays, but that was my (I now realize, naive) hope.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

SODOM AND GOMORRAH UNEXPURGATED

Growing up a Seventh-day Adventist, I was taught that the Bible was literally true--all of it.  Sure the Bible was written by men, but they were directly inspired by God, and their words, the stories they told, were considered inerrant truth.  (For example, when confronted with the fact that whales don’t have the physiology that would allow them to swallow a man whole, as is related in the book of Jonah, they would point out that God had prepared a large fish--not a whale--to swallow Jonah.)  I might also mention that we were taught using the Kings James Version, and that is how I thought the Bible was written, with “thees” and “thous.”  I am too embarrassed to say how old I when I finally realized that the KJV was simply one of many translations from the original Hebrew and Greek.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

COMING OUT AS AN ATHEIST

When an individual becomes a Christian or renews his faith in Christ, it’s often the occasion for a public declaration followed by public rejoicing.  This generally happens in a church setting or at least with a group of like-minded Christians, frequently accompanied by numerous “Hallelujahs” and “Praise the Lords.”  It’s high fives all around.  Contrast that with what typically happens when one relinquishes his or her religious faith in favor of atheism.  Generally, one keeps the news to oneself, at least initially: No public declarations, no hallelujahs, no high fives.  In this essay I would like to explore the reasons for this difference in the context of my own journey.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

THE LOTTERY OF BABYLON

I just finished reading the “Lottery of Babylon,” a short story by Jorge Luis Borges.  Actually, this is probably the fourth or fifth time I have read the story, and I can see myself reading it again.  Why am I talking about this fictional tale in a blog concerning skepticism and religious belief?  I believe that Borges asks interesting metaphysical questions about the nature of our existence, and this story in particular addresses what factors affect our actions and our fate.  Moreover, if nothing else, I am hoping to inspire anyone who reads this essay to explore Borges, not just this particular story but his writings generally.

Friday, February 7, 2014

THE MYTH OF ATHEIST DESPAIR

In my essay, “The Myth of Christian Joy,” I dealt with the proposition that faith in God is a source of additional happiness.  God’s love, Christians argue, is both cause for continuing joy and a means by which they can recover their happiness in the face of adversity.  In this essay, I would like to address the flipside to that discussion, the idea that lack of belief in God is reason for despair.  

Saturday, February 1, 2014

THE MYTH OF CHRISTIAN JOY

“Accepting Jesus Christ as my savior was the most important moment of my life.  Knowing God’s love for me has brought and continues to bring me enormous joy.”  Sound familiar?  Many of my Christian friends regularly state that their faith has made them much happier and that they take great joy and comfort in knowing and experiencing God’s love.  I’m sure that many repeat this sentiment to themselves and to others, perhaps daily.  And I am sure they are sincere in this belief, that these sentiments are not simply empty mantras that they repeat as ritual.  In short, they believe strongly that their faith has made them happier than they would be without it, and by implication that those persons with faith are happier than those without.

I respectfully disagree.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A LAYMAN’S EXPLANATION OF EVOLUTION

A comment my daughter Michelle made on a Facebook thread recently got me thinking about the concept of evolution.  She pointed out that evolution is nothing more than the natural outcome of a few basic principles of biology and that there is really nothing “theoretical” about it.  She was stating that evolution is simply the result of the operation of those basic principles and to call it a “theory” is like speaking about a “theory” of square.  Through the operation of a few basic principles of biology, on which we all should agree, evolution happens in the same way that following a few basic operations in geometry results in a square.

I am no biologist.  In fact, although I have had a great affection for science my entire life, I was always least comfortable with biology.  But I am hoping that that might give me an advantage in explaining evolution as a true layman.